Masters of Wine Surprised and Delighted by Australia

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In October the Masters of Wine came to Australia, they saw stunning landscapes, they tasted hundreds of amazing wines, they ate superb food everywhere they went, they swam in the sea, they stood on a hill in the Yarra Valley in 35-degree heat and felt the hot northerly blow, they tasted some more, and they have gone back to their markets with a clear message of how exciting Australian wine is right now.

On the last night we had a wrap party at Mothervine in Adelaide and everyone was wearing a mile-wide smile. The previous eight days had been a constant unfolding wave of surprise, delight and sheer enjoyment and fun, with hundreds of new relationships and friendships made.

The scene was set on the morning of the first day in Sydney with Wine Australia putting on a welcoming tasting breakfast at the new Bennelong restaurant. As we looked over the harbour and tasted through a brilliantly curated selection of classic and contemporary Aussie wines (from Wendouree and Bests to Luke Lambert, Ruggabellus and Lark Hill) the tone was set by speakers Andrew Caillard MW and MikeBennie, who spoke of “innovation not imitation, with acceleration!”

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Brian Walsh spoke of a new Australia, with wines of “freshness and brightness at their core”. Chris Hancock MW (the only living honorary MW thanks to his “saving” of the 1985 tour) told the group to switch on their BS radars, interrogate their hosts and have a bloody good time.

And we were off!

First stop was the Hunter Valley (Tyrrell’s and McWilliam’s) – the Semillons delighted (but were expected) and the mid weight, fresh and perfumed Shirazes surprised many in the group whose image of Hunter Valley Shiraz was still “sweaty saddles”. This was to become a recurrent feature of the trip, with wine styles confounding and overturning previously held perceptions, and delighting the group in their discoveries.

Day two started with the red-eye to Melbourne and a superb welcoming lunch on the Mornington at Ten Minutes by Tractor – suckling pig on a spit and heirloom carrots set the bar high for the food, which was consistently fantastic on the trip – so important for international wine guests who are as much foodies as winos these days. And of course everyone was blown away by the quality of the coffee.

That evening we split the group up, small groups of MWs and local hosts roaming the laneways of Melbourne in search of fine wine and good times. Rick Kinzbrunner took his group of MWs to dinner at Rockpool with three six-packs of Giaconda to drink – yep, they probably won that night!

The next morning we were treated to a spot of culture with a talk in the Yarra Valley by Max Allen on the history of the Swiss settlers and how they worked hand in hand with the indigenous people.

Then it was lunch, where seven of the leading small producers in the Yarra had somehow contrived to set up a bush barbecue lunch in the middle of a vineyard with stunning views of the Upper Yarra. It was 35 degrees, a hot northerly was blowing and even the reds were on ice, but the group loved it. They really felt the heat and wildness of the ‘sunburnt country’, and will never forget it.

The group of producers was led by the magnificently-bearded Bill Downie, which led to the group being referred to as the Yarra Taliban, both for beards and some innovative wine styles, which everyone loved.

It was interesting that, although not all the MWs would know the historical significance of some of the producers there – Gembrook Hill, Mount Mary, Yarra Yering – the wines spoke for themselves and impressed everyone. By the same token I’m sure that many of the hosts during the week were unaware of the influence, buying power and profile of many of the MWs in the group – but suffice to say it was a highly influential and impressive slice of our global membership.

The Chardonnay masterclass at Oakridge (courtesy of the Yarra Association) caused much debate and delight around the modern style of Chardonnay, which for many MWs was ‘new news’, a sign of how much work is still to be done getting the message out there to the overseas markets.

A relaxed dinner at De Bortoli gave everyone time to draw breath, and the group were mightily impressed by the fresh and fun wines shown over dinner (aromatic blends, whole bunch Syrah and Gamay).

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Day four and the whistle-stop tour of central and high country Victoria – Tahbilk then Brown Brothers and Campbells. Australia’s First Families of Wine (AFFW) were one of the principal supporters of the trip, and in our eight day itinerary we managed to visit 11 of their 12 members, the tyranny of distance conspiring against us getting over to WA to see Howard Park.

The Victorian producers turned on agreat show, going back four decades of tasting at Tahbilk. It was all about innovation and Tasmania at Browns, and Colin Campbell delivered the fortified masterclass to die for in Rutherglen. The day ended with a memorable supper of Parker pies on picnic rugs on the lawn at Campbells as the sun set over the muscat vines. Magical.

Next morning we were back on the red-eye to Adelaide, and a day in McLaren Vale. Yangarra pulled off one of the most professional and logistically ambitious events of the trip – a full marquee set up in the middle of the High Sands Vineyard with 300 Riedel glasses, portaloos and even a wifi hotspot! Lunch at The Star of Greece with 20 local producers was a real hit. There was a casual walk-around tasting, showcasing Grenache and Mediterranean whites, salt and pepper squid being passed around, followed by a couple of hours to decompress on Port Willunga Beach. Half the group were brave enough to take a dip in Gulf St Vincent, with the day rounded off by a superb dinner at d’Arry’s Veranda with Chester in great form.

The next day started at Magill Estate. Penfolds rolled out the big gun reds to blow away the group, the surprise being the pin-point modern Chardonnays and the incredible Grandfather tawnies.

In the Adelaide Hills Michael Hill Smith MW and David LeMire MW did something unusual: they put on a tasting of other people’s wines. First a bracket showing evolution of classic varieties, including Vasse Felix, Yabby Lake and Clonakilla. Then a bracket showing the “cool kids” Ochota Barrels, Jauma, Luke Lambert, Brash Higgins and others. It takes confidence and balls to host a group and show other people’s wines, but what Michael and David did was in the true spirit of the Institute of Masters of Wine, promoting learning, interaction and excellence. And we did get to see the Shaw + Smith wines over lunch!

Next the Barossa, and our first evening was at Seppeltsfield followed by dinner at Fino. Warren Randall provided each MW with the chance to taste their birth year – probably the most talked about tasting of the trip. People overseas simply have no idea that Seppeltsfield and its ancient fortifieds exist. For many it’s like finding out that the Titanic has been raised, refurbished to its former glory and being given a first-class cabin to sail. To say it completely blew the group away is an understatement, and provided the perfect contrast of history and heritage to complement the cutting-edge contemporary wines we’d seen earlier in the day.

Yalumba and Henschke provided superb experiences the next day, with a visit to Yalumba’s nursery being a unique experience for many. Walking in the Hill of Grace vineyard was another one of those tears-in-the-eyes moments for the group, and the ’86 Hill of Grace we tasted afterwards was looking pretty good! We blew away the cobwebs with a glass of Riesling and oysters up at the Steingarten vineyard, and Jacob’s Creek provided a fantastic ‘musical chairs’ tasting around four buildings showcasing four stories in their business, which included Japanese-inspired wines to go with sushi, the double barrel whisky aged wines unashamedly aimed at ‘males in their thirties’, and the premium St Hugo range. They all surprised and delighted many in the group who hadn’t realised how serious and good the big boys can be.

Jacob’s Creek provided the venue for that night’s tasting and dinner, hosted by the Barossa Grape & Wine Association. A huge marquee, some of the greatest wines of the region, more than 50 local producers and a long table dinner all added up to make it the default gala dinner at the end of tour. The Barons of the Barossa brought some style and ceremony by investing Dr Joseph (Pepi) Schuller MW to the order. Glory to the Barossa!

And so to day eight and Clare, hosted by Taylors and Jim Barry. Peter Barry welcomed us in the Florita vineyard (now the cellar door of Clos Clare) and it was remarkable to think that this was only the second time on the entire trip when we had stood in a vineyard and tasted the wine from that vineyard (the other being Yangarra High Sands). This should be done more often. Later on at lunch (at the excellent Seed) Peter made one of the most profound comments of the trip. He said that for 30 years he’d go into work and waved good morning to his staff, and they’d say “good morning, Peter” back. Then one day he went in and someone said “good morning, Dad” back, and that’s why he does what he does. I think that sums up the message of AFFW and the whole Australian family-owned wine community right there.

I’ll finish with my own best memory of the trip. At Seppeltsfield Robin Don MW, at 83 the tribal elder of the group, tasted his birth year fortified of 1932. His tasting note was “remarkable concentration”. He told me that despite being in the wine trade all his life, he’d never actually tasted his birth year, as it was a poor vintage in Portugal, Madeira, Bordeaux etc. Then as he gazed at the historical charts on the wall in the Centenary Cellar, he went on to tell me that his father had fought at Gallipoli, and came out of it “unharmed”, only to be shot down flying over Germany later in the war when he lost an arm. I thought that when I’m Robin’s age, in another 40 years, I’ll come back to Seppeltsfield, which will still be there, and may say to the young man or woman giving me my birth year tasting that when I was a young man, I stood in that cellar and spoke to an old man, who told me that his father had fought at Gallipoli.

Goosebumps.

The wine trade is as much about community, friendships, people and places. When the tasting notes are lost or forgotten, it’s the memories of the people and places that will endure. The Australian wine community has 44 powerful and influential ambassadors from around the world, and 44 new friends.

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